Written by: Ryan Bellgardt, Josh McKamie, & Andy Swanson, Mary Shelley
Directed by: Ryan Bellgardt
Starring: Jordan Farris, Christian Bellgardt, and John Ferguson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"We're from the future, and it's time to kick some Frankenstein ass."
Army of Frankensteins presents a ludicrous bit of revisionist history that proposes the Civil War hinged on the involvement of Mary Shelleyís famous creature, a scenario thatís still more plausible than the one put forth by Southern folks who insist the war wasnít about slavery. (I would say thatís neither here nor there, but these people deserve to be ridiculed and shamed for eternity.) It immediately marks the film as a joke, of course, which has become the rigueur du jour lately, and it is predictably something of a lark. Taking it seriously is nearly impossible and the film knows as much, but itís at least sincere. To make an obvious metaphor, itís stitched together from various body parts, and what it lacks in brains it makes up for with heart.
The most obvious re-animated cadaver here is Army of Darkness: like that film, it follows the exploits of a likeable, down-on-his luck guy who hangs out at a grocery store. Alan Jones (Jordan Farris) has recently quit (or been fired from) his job, but his girlfriend Ashley (Jami Harris) has stayed on, much to his dismay. He canít pay the rent (largely because he just dropped a ton of money on an engagement ring), and heís half-convinced Ashley is cheating on him with her supervisor. Such anxieties become unimportant when heís kidnapped by a mad scientist and his pint-sized assistant in order to complete a long-gestating experiment involving the descendants of Civil War veterans. Wanting to have no part of it, Alan resists and inadvertently opens a portal into 1864, where he and his two captors suddenly find themselves in a position to alter the course of history.
Alternate history is a fascinating subgenre, even when it involves something as ridiculous as Army of Frankensteinsóin theory, at least. Maybe you or I could find some intrigue in the decision in crossing these particular streams, but the filmmakers here have embraced the worst of impulses of mash-up culture by simply jamming together two things never meant to fit together, like a couple of mismatched jigsaw pieces. That they donít fit is the joke, you see, and Army of Frankensteins spends 100 minutes riffing on it: ďWhat if Frankensteinís monster helped win the Civil War? What if it were around to possibly prevent Lincolnís assassination?Ē You get the point. You probably got the point when you heard the title. At the very least, youíll get the point before the end of the prologue, which ends with a monster (who is maybe the dumpiest iteration of the Creature this side of John Bloom is Dracula vs. Frankenstein) beating a guy to death with his own severed arm.
As it continues to lay these ill-fitting pieces, it does so with reckless abandon. Thereís a sense that the story is being made up as it goes along: the Frankensteins begin as antagonists before becoming allies, and the film zips from one gory, chaotic set-piece to the next. In between, a subplot straight out of Back to the Future develops, as Alan realizes he may be breaking up a courtship between two of his ancestors, thus jeopardizing his own existence. Simply cribbing from these superior films is the easy half of the battle, of course; transplanting their wit and soul is another fight altogether, one that Army of Frankensteins loses rather handily. While its spirited approach initially makes it easy to like, it soon begins to plod through obvious, broadly played scenarios. A film where Frankensteinís monster helps to rewrite history should not feel like such a chore.
A textbook example of filmmakers biting off more than they can chew, Army of Frankensteins aims high (itís a high concept in that it stacks so many ideas on top of each other that youíre convinced the folks behind it must have been guided by chemical substances) but falls short due to limited resources, two of which stick out like sore, gangrened thumbs. The broad acting is often cringe-worthy and exacerbated by the feeling that everyone is playing dress-up for a low-rent Civil War re-enactment, one thatís been shot on an obviously digital backlot. Even the scenes shot on location (many of them in daylight) are harsh, flat, and digital, with nearly all its seams showing. While its goreóand thereís plenty of severed heads and crushed skulls to go aroundóis mostly fine, Army of Frankenstein struggles to rise above its low-budget aesthetic. It looks like a film that was welded together with spare parts and little time to make sure those parts were polished.
But thereís a sort of admirable quality to that, too, and, if nothing else, Army of Frankensteins feels scrappy. Several moments see director Ryan Bellgardt losing his grip and flailing about, yet you at least sense that heís trying to hold on. Other movies are content to allow their badness to unfurl like a banneróit somehow becomes a sense of pride rather than shame. Army of Frankensteins never goes quite that far, as it feels just genuine enough thanks to a good-natured set of characters, all of whom (thankfully) fall on the right side of history in their desire to obliterate the Confederacy. Even Christian Bellgardt isnít a deal-breaker as the bratty Igor, a concept that sounds irritating on paper (precocious kids in horror movies rarely work) but works out well enough in practice.
Thereís the slightest bit of investment in these characters that ensures the film doesnít waste its audienceís time by simply laughing at its ridiculous concept the whole time. In other words, it actually tries, and, for that, I wonít even take it to task for not being properly titled Army of Frankensteinís Monsters. At this point, anyone pedantic enough to do that is the real monster.
Army of Frankensteins arrives on Blu-ray on September 1st courtesy of Scream Factory.
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